Pompeo and Russia's Lavrov joust over meddling in US elections

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Pompeo (right) and Lavrov (left) at the end of the State Department press conference in Washington. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo jousted with his Russian counterpart over allegations that President Vladimir Putin's government meddled in the 2016 presidential election, saying there was "no mistake" about what happened and the US would protect the integrity of the vote.

"I made our expectations of Russia clear," Pompeo said on Tuesday (Dec 10) at a news conference in Washington alongside Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov after the two met behind closed doors.

"The Trump administration will always work to protect the integrity of our elections. Period."

Lavrov shot back that the allegations of Russian interference in the election were "baseless" and reminiscent of "McCarthyism."

"No one has given us these facts because they simply do not exist," Lavrov said before the two diplomats went to the White House for a closed-door meeting with President Donald Trump.

The back-and-forth, one of several testy exchanges between the two diplomats in front of reporters, only highlighted just how sour the relationship has become between the US and Russia, and how little progress has been made to make it better since Trump won the presidency in 2016 on promises to work with Putin.

Lavrov and Pompeo butted heads over everything from the number of diplomats in each other's countries to their differing attitudes toward Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro.

The only area where they seemed to find common cause was on North Korea and the shared belief that it must give up its nuclear weapons, though Lavrov also said dialogue can only achieve success if the two sides take "reciprocal steps."

But it was election interference that remained the source of the most tension.

A 2017 intelligence report by the CIA, the FBI and the National Security Agency assessed that Russia's government meddled in the US election and sought to help Trump win.

"We have asked many times our American partners about the opportunity to deal with the suspicions expressed in October 2016 all the way up to Trump's inauguration - there was no response," Lavrov said.

The veteran diplomat said he knew nothing about a theory embraced by Trump and some of his supporters that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in 2016 and its goal was to help Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Trump faces impeachment in the Democratic-controlled House over his efforts to press Ukraine's new president to pursue that theory as well as seeking political dirt on Democrat Joe Biden.

In the past, Pompeo has stuck close to Trump's insistence that Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian interference was a "witch hunt."

But on Tuesday, he was more pointed in his assessment, saying "we don't think there is any mistake about what transpired."

Trump's White House meeting with Lavrov was the first since a May 2017 visit in which the US president boasted to the Russian about firing then-FBI director James Comey and reportedly shared classified information.

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